Culture

Pompeii set to rise again in happy end to restoration saga

POMPEII, Italy: Pompeii is rising from the ashes again – despite the worst that Italy’s mafia, and bureaucracy, could throw at it. Buried during a volcanic eruption in the first century, the ancient city is undergoing a multimillion-euro restoration which will see the preserved bodies of victims go on display on site.

The transformation of one of the world’s most treasured archaeological sites has been a challenge both for archaeologists and for Italy itself.

Archaeologist Massimo Osanna was sent in to turn around the project two years ago amid reports of degradation of the ruins, of theft and even of looting by the Neapolitan mafia, the Camorra.

He now has a 130 million euro budget, most of it from the European Union.

In March, UNESCO inspectors – who had threatened to take Pompeii off the list of World Heritage sites – acknowledged that there had been considerable improvements to the site’s conservation.

“This is a really exciting time for Pompeii,” Osanna said. “Thousands of people are working together. We currently have 35 construction areas on the site.”

Pompeii’s transformation includes a new special exhibition of around 20 victims of the eruption, preserved in plaster with their expressions and positions fixed at the very moment they met their fate, carbonized by the intense heat of a 300 degree-Celsius gas cloud.

Displayed for the first time, the bodies of men, women and children from Pompeii and neighboring Herculaneum – which was also engulfed by the eruption – are laid out in a wooden pyramid in the middle of an ancient amphitheater.

Until Sept. 27, a series of nighttime visits will give visitors the chance to explore the site by moonlight, with guided tours, video installations and wine tastings based on an ancient Roman recipe.

“We have followed UNESCO’s advice to extend projects beyond the initial deadline of 2015,” Osanna said. “We have the resources and we will carry on working.”

With 2.7 million tourists visiting the ancient city last year, the ruins are the second most visited attraction in Italy after Rome’s Colosseum, and are seen as a symbol of the challenges in preserving Italy’s cultural heritage.

“This is a new era for Pompeii and our efforts are bearing fruit,” said Italy’s Culture Minister Dario Franceschini, as he inaugurated the Palestra Grande (Large Gymnasium) last week, after seven years of restoration work.

The enormous space surrounded by columns is where, until Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79, young Romans played sports.

“We are all specialized in different areas,” said restorer Paola Zoroaster as she finished working on a site just meters away from the Agora, the spectacular main square, “some in stone work, plaster, frescos and mosaics.

“The conditions here on the site are good,” she continued, “because, before we started our work, the area had already been inspected and repaired to ensure that it was secure.”

The surrounding region is one of Italy’s poorest and Osanna admitted economic problems make Pompeii a particularly complex site to work on. He hopes the bid to improve conservation efforts will be echoed by investment in the surrounding region.

“We want a fast train which goes directly to Pompeii’s archaeological site,” he said. “We want the area surrounding the site to be just as beautiful as the site itself.”

His optimism comes despite a series of shutdowns at the site, most recently two weeks ago, when 120 workers struck over overtime pay and closed the doors, leaving angry tourists locked out.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 11, 2015, on page 16.

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